The close-quarters nature of ships and early emergence of the COVID-19 virus aboard ships put a spotlight directly on cruise lines in a way that few other industries were subjected. But those early issues gave cruise lines a head start on fully understanding problems related to virus spread and finding solutions for them.
In early July, Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas became the first large cruise ship to call to Alaska since the 2019 cruise season, and ships are now sailing out of Florida. The Celebrity Edge sailed from Fort Lauderdale in late June, making it the first ship to sail from a U.S. port in more than a year. Ships are also now sailing in the Caribbean, Asia, Europe and beyond. That’s not just critical for the cruise lines; it’s critical for all those ports and the small businesses within them that depend on tourism to survive and thrive.
How are cruise lines managing their relaunch, what are the challenges, what are they doing to keep passengers and meeting attendees safe, and is there reason for optimism?
“The biggest challenges now are getting back to full operation and overcoming barriers in booking,” says Rob Coleman, senior director, charter and incentive sales for Holland America Line. “Our guests want to know this will look and feel like a cruise they expect. They want to know it’s safe, so we’re telling that story and providing information to communicate this to them.”
From the meetings, incentives, conferences & exhibitions (MICE) perspective, he adds, “It’s very much the same issue of booking barriers, but the economy and businesses must recover as well. Some are doing well and beginning to use travel incentives again. Others are building up to it. We typically plan these programs 12 to 36 months in advance, so even if a company is just starting to ramp up, we can discuss timing and options.”
Not surprisingly, ever-changing guidelines are an issue, says Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line. “We’re finding that our biggest challenge at the moment is working through the constantly evolving guidelines and then communicating this information to thousands of guests and crew. Our teams have been working diligently to make sure our guests and crew are updated on the latest information, and that has gone a long way in our successful resumption of service.”
Lisa Vogt, AVP, corporate, incentive & charter sales with Celebrity Cruises, puts vaccination issues at the top of the list. “But we’re already finding solutions, and are collaborating with health and political officers to make the safest environment onboard for all guests and crew.”
At Scenic Group USA, which operates Scenic and Emerald Cruises, Maggie Carbonell, VP marketing, points to rising prices. “There’s been increased pricing across the board — air, hotel, cruise — and it’s understandably scary to some clients. The industry isn’t bringing back all products at once, and that restricted supply is causing increases, as is pent-up demand from travel-hungry guests. Our job is to allay fears and make sure the MICE booking advisers understand we’re ready to work with them.” Also concerning, Carbonell adds, “is that it’s still a fluid situation with COVID and what each country is doing regarding opening up again for visitors.”
Jerry Vaughn, president of CEALS — Meeting & Incentive Programs, which sets many programs at sea, points to something else entirely: lack of adequate space. “The single biggest issue is the availability of meeting space to conduct events. The more complex the meeting, the more challenging space becomes. Classroom-style setups are very difficult to work with if you have a group of any size.” Unfortunately, he adds, “I don’t see any expansion of dedicated meeting space on cruise ships. To the contrary, much of meeting space on existing ships has been reduced or eliminated. It will depend on the type and size of meeting, but it is going to be very challenging.”
Challenges aside, the cruise industry is moving forward, albeit gradually. “We feel like clients and buyers are jumping into the shallow end of the pool, but with enthusiasm,” Carbonell says. “This pandemic has caused a sea change in the industry, as many companies have come to realize how dependent we are on one another, and the need to be flexible, fluid, nimble and patient has never been more important. Remaining apprised of evolving protocols and in-country restrictions is essential. Developing even closer relationships with the countries we sail through has helped us with the planning and timing of announcing the restart of river cruising. And our ongoing communications with our guests allow them to make travel decisions based on their own comfort levels.”
At Holland America, Coleman says, “The immediate and long-term focus is on our return to service and continued ramp-up to eventual full service and full capacity on all our ships around the world.” Holland America started sailing to Alaska out of Seattle in July, followed by sailing in Greece. For fall and winter, the focus is Mexico, the California Coast and Caribbean. “In the U.S., we have a clear path to cruising through the guidelines for fully vaccinated cruises,” he says. “We’re working in other regions to clarify requirements, but expect we’ll be able to operate in a similar manner and with a fairly typical onboard cruise experience.”
Duffy says Carnival resumed service over the July 4 weekend as Carnival Vista sailed from Galveston and Carnival Horizon departed from Miami. The summer Alaska program followed soon after, as did West Coast operations and the introduction of the fleet’s “newest and most innovative” ship, Mardi Gras. “Our guests, as well as our crew, were very excited to resume sailing after a nearly 16-month pause in operations,” Duffy says. “It was quite emotional for everyone involved, myself included, as I sailed on Carnival Horizon’s first cruise back. As for the next 18 months, more and more ships will gradually begin sailing, and we should have our entire fleet back to full service by the end of the year.”
Silversea Cruises was the first cruise line to return to global ultra-luxury cruising with voyages in Greece and the Galápagos, which started in June. The line, part of the Royal Caribbean Group, also announced new summer voyages in Alaska, which started in July. Made possible by the passing of the U.S. Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, Silver Muse set sail on round-trip voyages from Seattle in late July as the first ultra-luxury cruise ship to visit Alaska this summer, following a varied series of 10- and 11-day itineraries. These extended voyages will enable Silversea’s guests to journey to some of Alaska’s most breathtaking ice structures, including the Sawyer Glacier and the Mendenhall Glacier, as well as experience the state’s remarkable landscapes, wildlife and remote communities, such as Ketchikan, Juneau, Wrangell, Skagway and Sitka. “We proudly continue to lead the ultra-luxury cruise industry’s healthy return to service and commend the leadership of Alaska and Iceland for taking steps to advance the safe resumption of global travel,” says Roberto Martinoli, Silversea’s president and CEO in a news release.
Vogt thinks the industry will emerge “even more energized, with new changes that attendees will be happy to see and would like to stay in place.” She adds, “We’ll continue to flourish. Our guests love cruising.”
For meetings and incentives, it will likely take time before things return to pre-pandemic norms. Vaughn thinks incentive programs that don’t have any meeting component will likely do well and thrive. However, he says, “I think meetings on ships will be pretty tough over the next 18 months. In addition to space, the biggest issue will be perceptions of cruise ship safety given the negative publicity generated in the media regarding COVID and norovirus.”
Carbonell notes that, “2021 isn’t totally open yet, and even if it were to magically open today, MICE business typically doesn’t book this close in. Many of our clients are looking toward 2022, 2023 and beyond. Because our product is geared toward smaller groups with more personalized attention, we can respond quickly to the fast-changing situation we expect to see for the rest of 2021. But it’s important for those booking MICE to realize that, due to pent up [market] demand, we’re seeing a shortage of charterable dates in the near future, so they should move quickly to propose dates,” Carbonell says. “We also expect buyouts to grow, which have always been very popular on more intimate ships. With our two brands, Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours [which includes our ultra-luxury Discovery Yacht, Scenic Eclipse], and Emerald Cruises, we have a total fleet of 25 ships at this point [and growing], and we’re eager and ready to fulfill that increased demand.”
Carbonell thinks MICE bookings will continue on an upward trend. “When 2020 began, it was one of the most profitable and exciting times in the MICE business. We’re already seeing strong interest and fully expect travel enthusiasm to return in full force as we get beyond the pandemic.”
Holland America is also seeing a surge of corporate interest. “Companies are building strategies for the next several years, and that includes motivating and incentivizing employees and customers alike,” Coleman says. “The past 18 months have helped many of us understand the value of travel to our health and outlook. It will certainly be the most desired reward in the incentive arena for the foreseeable future.”
Like others, Vogt is looking beyond 2021. “We’re seeing very busy 2022 and 2023 seasons. Meeting planners more than ever want to reenergize their attendees and provide time for team building — especially as so many participants have been apart from each other for so long.”
Freddy Muller, AVP global corporate, incentive & charter sales with Royal Caribbean International, is also seeing meeting and incentive bookings beyond the current year on the rise. “At Royal Caribbean, we’re starting to see an uptick in RFPs for 2022 and 2023, which is highly encouraging.”
Carnival, too, sees a healthy future for meetings and incentive programs at sea. “There’s been tremendous pent-up demand for Carnival cruises,” Duffy says. “In fact, our bookings for 2022 are surpassing the pace we saw one year out ahead of 2019. We’re seeing MICE and charter bookings well into 2023.”
Cruise lines have taken a deep dive into onboard health and safety, and there’s every reason for meeting and incentive planners to feel safe booking programs at sea.
“The health and safety of our guests, crew and communities we visit, and operating in compliance with all regulatory requirements, are our top priority, and we’ve implemented a wide range of onboard protocols and procedures,” Duffy says. “We’re following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and we’ve initially opted to sail with 95% of our guests vaccinated because, in the end, we feel it provides the best experience for our guests under the current guidelines. Under these guidelines, vaccinated guests don’t have to wear masks on board, nor are there physical-distancing requirements. Self-service buffets operate as usual. We’ve put all printed materials on QR codes, which not only provides a contactless experience, but is more environmentally friendly.” She adds, “There are some physical distancing guidelines that have been rolled out, with entertainers staying roughly 6 feet from guests when performing. Overall, the cruise experience is similar to what guests expect, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
At Holland America, Coleman says, “Our highest priorities are compliance, environmental protection and the health, safety and well-being of our guests, crew and the communities we visit. All of our 2021 cruises are available for guests with proof of having received their final dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine at least 14 days prior to the beginning of the cruise. While these cruises will be very much a typical cruise, much goes on behind the scenes. We’ve enhanced environmental sanitation, meaning public areas and staterooms will be thoroughly and frequently cleaned using a safe disinfectant proven to kill coronaviruses,” he says. “Our highly trained medical staff includes doctors and nurses capable of caring for a broad range of medical conditions, including dealing with COVID-19 patients. Medical centers will be equipped with COVID appropriate testing and treatment capabilities. Ships now have enhanced air filtration with a combination of increased fresh air and upgraded HVAC units with MERV13 (F7) filters throughout. Our onboard medical centers will have HEPA filtration and UV lighting technology for air circulation.”
Vogt says, “Vaccinations are adding an important layer of protection for all passengers and crew. We’ve also made changes to our food offerings to be more service oriented and less self-serve, and there’s 100% fresh air in all staterooms and even more sanitation than our already-high standards at Celebrity.”
Royal Caribbean has “a thoughtful, robust and multi-layered approach in place to make our cruises the safest possible for everyone,” Muller says. “We’ve developed measures to protect the health and safety of guests, crew and the destinations we visit. All cruises will depart with all crew being vaccinated, and testing and health questionnaires in place. Technology also plays a role. Royal’s mobile app has allowed us to accelerate game-changers, such as Muster 2.0, that will add to the guest experience and encourage healthy and safe practices. Behind the scenes,” he adds, protocols and practices include “100% fresh, filtered air with maximum ventilation, enhanced cleaning standards and expanded expert medical care, as well as agreements to ensure no prolonged stay onboard.”
On Scenic and Emerald cruises, Carbonell, says, “We continue to follow the protocols and suggestions made by the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO) and Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), as well as working with multiple countries’ health agencies to ensure we go above and beyond for our guests and crew. The environment is ever-changing, and we’ll remain flexible in response. Many of the basics are already in place, including PCR testing, new hygiene protocols, cabins set aside for quarantine needs, excursions adjusted and organized to be the safest possible, and dining and social events done with proper protocols.”
At this time, Carbonell adds, “Guests are required to be fully vaccinated to sail and our crews are tested daily. Upon embarkation, guests will be informed of the latest health and safety procedures during safety briefings, and our crew is thoroughly trained on all aspects of these procedures. We’re doing everything possible to make sure guests are well and safe while still giving them a feeling of being welcomed as family.”
All the insiders see some reasons for positivity. Vaughn is cautious as long as the pandemic is still with us given that cruise lines are impacted by the vaccination and immunity rates of other countries. And social distancing on ships is often difficult. Still, he says he remains “moderately optimistic.”
Carbonell, meanwhile, says she thinks travel will return to pre-pandemic levels and that it will happen faster than any previous recovery. “We see how excited our loyal guests are to get back on our ships. They can’t wait to explore the world again without severe restrictions. We’re an ‘in-person’ company. Our regional sales directors always made in-person contact with travel advisers and agencies, and our crews are happy to greet new and returning guests,” she says. “We’re truly optimistic that as we move through what seems to be a transition year , we’ll be able to again see our clients, shake their hand [or bump elbows], break bread and raise a glass. It’s so important to have that in-person connection in this business.”
Coleman thinks this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic problems. “It’s been nearly a year and a half of no sailings and no travel in general. Holland America Line’s first Alaska sailing in July was a big moment — the first step to bringing our ships back into operation and a return to normalcy. The excitement we feel from staff and guests is overwhelming. After being limited for so long, there’s a real excitement and eagerness to travel, stretch our legs and embrace new experiences.”
Duffy says everyone at Carnival is “happy to be back to doing what we do best — providing our guests with a chance to reconnect with their friends, families and professional networks. We’re also pleased that our crew members are back on board and able to support their families back home. Between being repatriated from the ships and the pause in guest operations, it’s been challenging for crew members, and we’re so pleased to have them back,” she says. “In addition to the new Mardi Gras, featuring the first roller coaster at sea and powered by liquefied natural gas, Carnival Celebration is set to debut in late 2022, coinciding with our 50th anniversary, as is an as-yet-unnamed Excel-class ship in 2023. We also recently announced that Costa Magica of our sister company, Costa Cruises, will be joining our fleet in 2022 following an extensive multimillion-dollar upgrade.”
For Vogt, it’s simple: There’s optimism for “being back in the water and the energy surrounding our industry,” she says. “New ships, new destinations, new clients — it’s an exciting time after 15 months.”
Muller echoes similar enthusiasm. “Royal Caribbean is excited to be back. Our first sailing from a U.S. port was July 2 on Freedom of the Seas; Adventure of the Seas has been sailing out of Nassau since June, and we continue to operate in Singapore [since December 2020]. The newest addition to the Royal Caribbean fleet, Odyssey of the Seas, debuted this summer from the U.S., sailing to the Caribbean. As the world continues to open, we couldn’t be more excited to again deliver amazing experiences for our passengers.”
“My advice — don’t wait,” Coleman says. “If you have clients who customarily operate incentive or meeting programs, they’re ready to look to the future. If you don’t know where to start, we’re eager to assist. The Holland America Line charter & incentive team is standing by to discuss options and opportunities. As demand ramps up, space and fares may not be as flexible as before, so now is the time to lock in a group for 2022 and even 2023. The time is now for us to collaborate and get moving.”
With so much demand and ships being gradually introduced, Duffy also encourages planners to start now on future programs. “We have a very talented team at Carnival who specializes in working with meeting and incentive planners to find the cruise, itinerary and ship that’s right for them.”
Vogt encourages planners to book a program that’s meaningful for attendees, that gives them “something they can take back with them and will remember for life,” while Vaughn cautions planners who have never booked a program on a ship not to go it alone because executing a meeting on a ship is simply more difficult than on land. “Use a professional familiar with the cruise industry and cruise ships,” Vaughn advises. “Ships are basically a leisure product, and their programs and space are allocated to meet that objective. MICE events have to compete with that to ensure having the space and times to make programs work. You have to know the industry to ensure successful meetings on ships,” he says.
Carbonell keeps the emphasis on health and safety. “The best piece of advice is that safety and well-being are absolutely essential and have always been our highest priority,” she says. “Make sure the company you book with makes that their priority as well and that they’ve taken every sensible precaution. That’s what we’ve been doing since the start of this pandemic.” Bottom line, she adds, “You want your clients to be safe and to provide them with a unique, well-executed cruise experience.”
That, in a nutshell, is what every cruise line also wants for meeting and incentive attendees and the planners who work with them — and exactly what they think they’re finally able to deliver once again. C&IT